In 1846 prime minister Robert Peel announced the repeal of the Corn Laws which for over 40 years had protected English landowners from competition from imported foreign grain by means of high import tarrifs. The consequences were felt far and wide. Before long the price of wheat fell from 50s a ton to 30s a ton. A million acres of arable farmland was lost and the great migration from country farms to city factories was helped on its way. City employers were able to reduce wages because their workers needed less money to buy bread and because of the flood of people abandoning agriculture to look for work in the cities.
“What has all this to do with Herbie?”, you might say. Well not too much but bear with me because it’s interesting.
On Herbie, like the majority of narrowboats, we have a solid fuel stove which makes two things, heat and ash. Disposing of our ash is a minor problem. Some people tip it under the towpath hedgerow which is probably fine for the hedgerow but looks messy. Some people chuck it in the canal, which they probably shouldn’t do as the canals are silted up enough already, and some people put it in their rubbish sacks from where it probably ends up as harmless landfill but at some cost to society as landfill taxes are high. Of course we don’t make a lot of ash. But what if we made nearly a million tons a year of the stuff? That’s about what London produced in the mid nineteenth century mostly collected from houses. So what did they do with it?
A lot of it was shipped down river in barges to brickfields like tte ones in near Faversham in Kent. The fine dust known as soil was mixed in with clay slurry which when dried is baked as bricks. The more gritty stuff, known as brieze was also used in the brick making process but more for burning in the kilns. They used it to fill up all the little air spaces in between the brick stacks to give a better heat distribution. I suppose the name has to do with our modern breeze blocks. Bits of tin found in the ashes were recycled and interestingly, old its of burnt shoes and the like were sold for the making of Prussian blue.
Why all the stuff about the Corn Laws? Ah well, now we’re back to narrowboats. Until the Corn Laws were repealed, huge quantities of the fine ash were loaded into canal barges and shipped all over the country, where they were used as a soil dressing by grain farmers. It was a very profitable trade. Many of the major dust yards in London were situated along side the canal, at Paddington, Limehouse, and the like. After the repeal of the laws, the price of ash collapsed and the trade to farmers virtually died out. The large number of poor who were employed in the trade had their wages cut and no doubt the canal carriers had to look for new sources of custom.
If you found that as interesting as I did, then you might like to know about the book from which most of it came. London Labour and the London Poor by Henry Mayhew. Written in the 1850s this book is a quite brilliant record of the lives of poor people in London giving fascinating details of their occupations and their lives. much of it is given over to interviews with such people, and they are often extremely revealing, sometimes sad, often shocking and sometimes funny. It makes you realise that many of Dickens’s characters are pretty true to life. Interestingly the book is divided into three main sections, Those that will work, those that can’t work, and those that won’t work. All manner of characters are there, from organ grinders to petty thieves. I’m useless at reading books from end to end, but this one I can just open at any page and get involved. Being long out of copyright, it is available from a range of sources, including as a free ebook. If I were you I would get it.